Monday 23 October 2017

F1: matadors ready to unleash thrilling coup de grace

David Kennedy

Even on the second step of the podium in Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina floodlit circuit last Sunday, Fernando Alonso had the look of a haunted man who suddenly finds himself clinging to a crumbling cliff by his fingernails. Sebastian Vettel is drip-feeding a lethal cocktail to his only opposition in the title fight, with the alacrity of someone impatient to fulfill his destiny.

The German, as if mockingly, showed he could qualify third, be penalised and made to start the race in the pits (because he had insufficient fuel for FIA sampling) and yet still finish third. Alonso looked like a man condemned. The last two races of the season, over the next two Sundays, will offer either sudden death for Alonso in Texas or a reprieve until Brazil. As Oscar Wilde opened in De Profundis, 'Suffering is one very long moment.'

Fernando has all the skill and courage redolent of the great Spanish matador Manolete. Indeed Alonso recently tweeted these fighting words, 'if they break your sword, fight them with your hands'. You can almost hear the baying crowd roar 'olé, olé'. But, alas, Manolete was gored to death by a ferocious Miura-bred bull called Islero in 1947. The Italian car manufacturer Lamborghini immortalised these beasts by naming cars after them.

So staying with Wilde, picture the dénouement. Alonso, incarcerated by the superior design of others, enters the arena wearing his scarlet overalls, for blood and Ferrari are red. Vettel's Red Bull will be ready for him; Alonso doesn't have a monopoly on the provocative colour.

You couldn't accuse Alonso of killing the thing he loves but he'll use every advantage over Vettel. Will he give him a bitter look or deliver a flattering word, perhaps. But for sure he will come in for the kill with the sword, and if as he says that fails, he'll use his hands. It's stirring stuff. The last time a Ferrari came this close to the drivers' title was when Felipe Massa was world champion for a few tantalising seconds in that epic final race of the 2008 season in Brazil. That was until Glock's demise on the last corner of the last lap gave Lewis Hamilton, who was locked in battle with Vettel, the single point he needed to win the title.

According to legend, Ferrari's president Luca di Montezemili was so livid he destroyed the television that delivered that crushing disappointment, even though Ferrari won the constructors' title.

Duelling opponents often leave the door open for others to gain advantage. Kimi Raikkonen has been serving up impressively solid performances throughout this, his second season since his comeback. Last weekend he was rewarded with victory, becoming the eighth different driver this season to stand on the top step of the podium and Lotus the sixth different manufacturer.

You could argue that Hamilton's demise facilitated this stroke of luck but a win was on the cards and well deserved. The ice man took it in his laconic stride. When asked what it felt like to have clinched his first win since Belgium 2009, he replied, "not much really", which proves that although Raikkonen does have a pulse, there was an emotional bypass performed on him some time during his life.

Hamilton's pole position in Abu Dhabi and his command of the race until lap 19 was simply sublime (interestingly in 2009 he also got pole and went out on lap 19). The Englishman rightly deserved universal encomium for his masterly car control. Fuel pump failure robbed him of probable victory. Hamilton blames his team for not ensuring his six pole positions translated into six race wins (only three did) and he feels they cost him the title.

McLaren desperately need him to win one or both of the final races not least because it could be some time before they see the like of his pedigree again. The team has every reason to feel depressed as the season draws to a close because they know they're losing a prize fighter in Hamilton.

Jenson Button is a quality driver but he's not in Hamilton's league. Hamilton's replacement Sergio Perez has his good days but he's unlikely to immediately spearhead a charge against the likes of Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso in 2013. Mercedes can't wait to get their hands on Lewis.

Grand Prix racing returns to the US after a four-year hiatus. In 2007, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

decided it was no longer financially viable to continue. The circuit

was used to getting 300,000 spectators for the Indy 500 but less than a third of that turned up for a grand prix.

There's always been an ambivalent relationship between F1 and the US and the nadir was surely the 2005 Indy GP when only three Bridgestone-clad teams competed in the race following Michelin's withdrawal because it deemed its tyres were unsafe.

Now the race has moved a thousand miles south from its former home to 'The Circuit of the Americas' in Austin, Texas, a purpose-built track that cost circa $400m of private investment. Let's see how the sound of V8s is woven into the cacophony that makes Austin the live music capital of the world.

Vettel arrives with a ten-point lead and a fervent hope that he doesn't have to work so hard again for precious points. The second and third places that Alonso is prising from his Ferrari won't cut the mustard. It's not enough that Alonso succeeds, Vettel must falter.

It's virgin territory for all. Lewis Hamilton is a big fan of the States and he's really looking forward to the race and the atmosphere. Mexicans and South Americans will make the journey to support Perez, Maldonado, Massa and Senna and no doubt the large Hispanic diaspora will be rooting for Alonso and Pedro de la Rosa.

Alonso is the underdog but he'll be hoping that Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde's advice will be heeded by Vettel: 'One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards'. Of course the Spaniard will try everything in the book to wrench those winning cards from him. Enjoy the duel and let's hope Brazil gets the finale this epic season deserves.

Sunday Indo Sport

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport